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The idea and motivation for this essay originated in a discussion I had with my friend and totemic author Lupa on one of her Facebook posts where she linked to one of her own essays* which expressed her frustration with totem dictionaries. In this and past essays Lupa has expressed the opinion that totemism needs to move beyond the totem dictionary genre and into areas that focus more on giving totemists tools and practices for contacting to and learning from totems on their own terms. Her essays often paint the totem dictionary genre as overdone, redundant, and too often used as a crutch in lieu of doing personal work to understand a totem’s lessons.

I do greatly agree with most of her position. The majority of totem dictionaries on the market are repetitions of the same subject where descriptions of totems seem like so much copy-and-paste which add nothing new. I also believe that totem dictionaries should not lead a person to feel that they do not need to hone their own skills at determining for themselves why they’ve made a connection to a totem.

However, I do believe that totem dictionaries still have their place and I welcome new ones provided they are innovative and unique. I think these dictionaries can still be very useful to newcomers to totemism as well as potentially giving more seasoned totemists new food for thought.

A *good* totem entry is the spiritual equivalent of a naturalist's notes. Let's say you wish to see bald eagles. You might read from a naturalist that s/he has had the most luck viewing them at dawn among big trees along lake shores. This doesn't mean that's the *only* way to find bald eagles, of course, but it gives a good starting point. Likewise, someone wanting to contact Bald Eagle may read that someone finds that Bald Eagle is best contacted while meditating on high ground where you can feel the wind. Just like the naturalist's notes, it doesn't mean this is the only way, but it can point you in the right direction. The basic guided "go down a tunnel" meditation doesn't work well for me and I know others who face the same issue. I've often had to find areas, behaviors, sounds, offerings, or other specific details that makes a totem feel at home, helps draw them forth, and provide a much stronger link.

Many of the popular totems already have a good body of information out there to find ideas and advice. Patterns and trends can be gleaned from books, websites, and areas on the internet where totemists talk shop. Many bird totems enjoy being honored with adornments of feathers and dances which imitate their flights. Grizzly Bear is fond of offerings of salmon. Sometimes Wolf just wants a good howl. But what if you wish to communicate with a totem that has never been talked about? Sure, some totems are gregarious and just need to be asked respectfully to engage in conversation. But some totems are shy and need coaxing. Some test the devotion and respect of their students. And some are just plain picky about the conditions they need to feel comfortable and willing to open up. This leads me to the heart of my argument which is that totem dictionaries are still needed. In particular what is most needed now are specialized dictionaries which branch out and introduce people to totems that aren’t as common.

I believe that more specific dictionaries would likely start covering animals that have never been featured in totem dictionaries. For instance, if I were to write about totems of the swamps, I would, of course, include creatures that have been written about before such as Dragonfly, Heron, and Otter. I'd also include those never written about like Alligator Gar, Rat Snake, and Nutria. This, to me, can provide important benefits to the reader. One reason is that which I’ve already discussed. A dictionary covering new animals could help give people that first little push needed to help them contact a totem who might not show up automatically when first requested for an audience.

Another benefit is that many totems rely on sparks of recognition. Since most of us can't spend much time in a variety of habitats totems often turn to art, writing, and even television to gain people's attention. It's one reason I love Ravenari's totem dictionary site ( so much. I truly believe she has probably helped lesser known totems reach out and connect with people. I very much believe that, now that totemism is a common practice among many people, we are entering a time when the lesser-knowns are willing and wanting to find students. The popular animals will always have students, but I think we will find it more and more common for totemists to connect to other animals. Specialized totem dictionaries can help be mediators for this process.

As a hypothetical example, let’s say you come across a book devoted to the totem animals of India and are intrigued enough by it to bring it home with you. Or perhaps you run across a website lovingly created by a totemist who has a particular fondness for rodents and has created an extensive list of entries of totems of this group of animals. This leads you to come across an entry for Indian Giant Squirrel. Perhaps you feel a little tug that urges you to return to this entry multiple times until it finally clicks. Or maybe you receive a metaphysical smack on the back of your head. Either way, without access to this entry odds are you and Indian Giant Squirrel would never have had the opportunity to make a connection.

It is possible that you may have previously been receiving feelings that a totem was trying to make contact, and maybe there was even a strong enough impression to make you suspect you should be looking into Order Rodentia. However, that represents an enormous amount of animals too numerous to explore individually in great detail. Even if you had turned to a regular totem dictionary, you might have skimmed right by the entry for Squirrel as it is generally assumed that “Squirrel” means Grey Squirrel or possibly Red Squirrel thus making it a very weak connection to Indian Giant Squirrel. The very best opportunity this totem would have for contacting you would have been if someone had chosen to create a dictionary of totems from India or rodent totems and included it as an entry.

Another benefit of specialized totem dictionaries, specifically those focused on a locale, is that these dictionaries would also become great looks at the general spirit of the area. Not to single Ravenari out, but I've gained a much greater understanding of the spiritual landscape of Western Australia due to her introducing me to so many totems of that area, many I was unaware of before. Locale based dictionaries could help people who live there better understand the land around them as well as act as a spiritual atlas for people not from that area who, for whatever reason, need to spiritually journey there.

There are many different forms that specialized totem dictionaries could take such as:

Totems of specific areas such as states, provinces, countries, as well as continents which have received less attention than North America from dictionaries currently in the market.

Totems of specific bio-regions. This could include specific areas such as the Rocky Mountains or the Nile Delta as well as general biomes such as swamps, deserts, and tundra.

Detailed looks at totems from a specific group of animals. This could be as general as Reptiles or Fish, or it could profile a distinct group of animals such as Frogs, Ungulates, or Butterflies.

Plants!!! Plants (as well as Fungi) are rarely talked about as totems but, based on personal experience, there is an increasing desire among them to reach out to potential students and, in return, we are starting to see the first inklings of a trend towards people wishing to reach out to them.

Unfortunately issues of marketability will probably keep books titled “The Totems of Cuba” or “Turtles: A Totemic Dictionary” from being published (though, I for one, would snatch these books up in a heartbeat). Totem dictionaries that reach such levels of specialization will probably have to find their homes on the Internet. I do think that there is still a market for some specialized totem dictionaries. I think continents other than North America are due for closer looks and would find an audience among people who live there and, hopefully, many others who live elsewhere. Some biome specific dictionaries would probably draw attention. There are probably other topics that might have a chance such as reptiles or perhaps extinct animals. And plants!!! To date, there is only one plant totem book out there and they are worth giving more attention to. Personally, I think if a totemist (or group of totemists) has a love for a specific group of totems they shouldn’t let book companies’ views deter them. A website can be just as useful, if not more so, than a book for reaching out to people. (And if you choose to create such a website let me know! I’d be more than happy to help get the word out.)

Years ago, I took note of the trend of more and more totemists claiming connection to totems beyond those who are often the “stars” of most totem dictionaries. At first it was mostly seen in a wider variety of mammals and birds such as Maned Wolf, Wombat, and Harpy Eagle. Then insects such as Yellowjacket and Tick began appearing. Lately I’ve been seeing a trickle of very specific creatures of all types, some I’ve never heard of before, being connected to as totems. I feel that this is to be expected as we live in a global culture. Totemists from different countries meet online to trade notes and we all have access to information about creatures from all over the world.

This wide-ranging inclusiveness of totem species as already become a hallmark of our culture’s version of totemism. We are already seeing an increased interest in contact with lesser-known totems and, in return, lesser-known totems are starting to have more interest in us. I believe that as this trend grows in strength totemists are going to want, even need, to have specialized totem dictionaries to help aid them. Our path is growing, expanding, and starting to mature. I predict that specialized totem dictionaries will be one of the signs of the next stage of evolution for our unique form of totemism.

• Totem Animal Dictionaries and Their Shortcomings

Date: 2012-05-13 10:40 am (UTC)
lyonesse: (djspooky)
From: [personal profile] lyonesse
thanks for this. many many excellent points.

i wonder if a wiki or websites could help fill this niche without the need to resort to the publishing marketplace. i could write a ten- or twenty-item essay on fungal totems myself; nobody would have to be exhaustive; it would be a start.... also could be interesting to get different human perspectives on various totemic forms.

Date: 2012-05-15 05:08 pm (UTC)
spider_fox: (Default)
From: [personal profile] spider_fox
I'd like to hear the fungal totems perspective as well.



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